Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Bass Reeves: A Western Marshal--by Martha Hutchens

Bass Reeves, circa 1902
image from Smithsonian
Public Domain
Many men and women have overcome humble beginnings to build a successful live, be it great or small. Perhaps those whose life began in slavery had the hardest path of all. Two of the most famous men who succeeded in this difficult path are George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington. But today, I want to introduce you to a third man who managed this feat. His name was Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery with the William Steele Reeves family. Later, this family and their slaves moved to Texas. Bass was assigned to the son of the family, William Reeves. In 1861, William Reeves joined the Confederate 11thCalvary regiment, and Bass accompanied him.

Image by Willard at Deposit Photos
In 1862 (probably), Bass and William had a fight over a card game. Bass knocked William out and escaped into Indian Territory (later to be Oklahoma.) Between 1863 and 1865, Reeves served with the Union army, serving mostly in Indian Territory.

After the Civil War (between 1866 and 1870), Reeves worked as a guide and interpreter for railroad surveyors in Indian Territory. If you are keeping track, this means that Bass spent 18 of his first 32 years in Indian Territory. He didn’t waste his time there, either. While there, he learned several Native American languages and became familiar with the customs of multiple tribes. This knowledge will soon stand him in good stead.

In 1870, Bass moved his family to Van Buren, Arkansas. Reeves once boasted that he knew Indian Territory “like a cook knows her kitchen.” This knowledge led to him finding work as a guide for Deputy U.S. Marshals working out of the federal court located at Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1875, Judge Isaac C. Parker took over this court. He commissioned Bass Reeves as a Deputy US Marshal. Reeves is believed to be one of the first African-American Marshals to serve west of the Mississippi River—possibly the first.

Image by zim90 at Deposit Photos
It was here that Reeves found his true calling. David Kennedy, the historical curator of the US Marshals museum in Fort Smith, Arkansas, said that Reeves was the “most exemplary law enforcement officer the country has ever seen.”

You might wonder why. Let’s start with a few numbers. When Reeves started with the court, the jurisdiction he and other marshals patrolled was 75,000 square miles. US Marshals found this area the most dangerous in the country, with more than 130 men dying in the line of duty. Reeves patrolled the area for 30 years. He was never shot, though his hat was shot off and so was his belt. Well, that’s what the legend says, anyway. I’m not sure how that could happen, but I’ll leave it to your imagination.

Reeves arrested more than 3000 men and women who had broken federal laws. He arrested Jim Webb for the murder of a black preacher. When Webb did not show up for his day in court, Reeves went after him again. He found Webb in Indian Territory. Webb realized he had been found, and ran. From about 600 yards, he turned and fired several times at Reeves, several shots coming uncomfortably close. At this point, Reeves shot and killed Webb.

For one arrest, Reeves went undercover for three months, but came out with a signed confession from his target. He frequently masqueraded as many different people to find the information he needed to make an arrest. He was known for his observational skills.

Reeves had several tragedies in his life, but to me, two stand out. In 1884, he accidentally shot his camp cook while cleaning his gun. In 1886, he was arrested and was incarcerated for six months before he paid bail and was released. In 1887, he stood trial and was found not guilty.

Image by chinnapong at Deposit Photos
The second major tragedy in his life also attests to his integrity. In 1902, Bass Reeves’ son, Bennie, murdered his wife. An arrest warrant was issued, but Reeves’ boss faced a quandary. Reeves was held in high regard by all his co-workers, and none wanted to be the one to arrest his son. Reeves solved the dilemma by taking the warrant himself.

Accounts differ as to what Reeves was required to do for this arrest. One claims he tracked his son down in Indian Territory. Another claims that he arrested his son at his house. All agree, that Reeves alone arrested his son for murder. I can only imagine his turmoil.

His son stood trial and was sentenced to life imprisonment at Leavenworth Federal Prison. Reeves stood by his son through his trail and visited him in prison. Unfortunately, Bass did not live long enough to see his son’s sentence commuted after nearly 12 years. Bennie Reeves went on to live a honest life from the time of his release until his death.

Bass Reeves died in 1910.

It is claimed by some that he was the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, though I haven’t found strong evidence for this claim. He has been the focus of several recent movies, TV shows, and documentaries. His biography, Black Gun, Silver Star, by Art Burton is definitely on my to be read list.

Martha Hutchens is a transplanted southerner who lives in Los Alamos, NM where she is surrounded by history so unbelievable it can only be true. She won the 2019 Golden Heart for Romance with Religious and Spiritual Elements. A former analytical chemist and retired homeschool mom, Martha is frequently found working on her latest knitting project when she isn’t writing.

Martha’s current novella is set in southeast Missouri during World War II. It is free to her newsletter subscribers. You can subscribe to my newsletter at my website,
After saving for years, Dot Finley's brother finally paid a down payment for his own land—only to be drafted into World War II. Now it is up to her to ensure that he doesn't lose his dream while fighting for everyone else's. No one is likely to help a sharecropper's family.

Nate Armstrong has all the land he can manage, especially if he wants any time to spend with his four-year-old daughter. Still, he can't stand by and watch the Finley family lose their dream. Especially after he learns that the banker's nephew has arranged to have their loan called.

Necessity forces them to work together. Can love grow along with crops?


  1. I just watched a movie about him a couple of months ago. I bet back then many white folks were surprise that a black man was a marshall and many who thought he was just down right lying when he was telling the truth.

  2. Thank you for posting today. I will have to look for the movies and TV shows you speak of.

  3. I've heard or read his name but I can't remember where. Hopefully I'll have the chance to learn more. Thanks for sharing!